When I was in college I let myself be talked into jumping directly into an upper level course in conversational French. Once I realized that everyone else in the class was much more fluent, I barely spoke at all for fear of making embarrassing mistakes.
But then some years after college I met someone who was learning French, and he and I had no trouble carrying on a limited conversation in French (with some English and a fair number of hand gestures mixed in). I’m sure a real French speaker would have been horrified, but we had a grand time and managed to communicate pretty well.
Many years later at an Esperanto kongreso I met someone who’d taken up the language fairly recently and who spoke with clarity and confidence despite almost completely ignoring the accusative. I’m sure he knew he was committing grammatical errors, but he didn’t let that get in the way of communicating what he had to say.
The moral of all this is that fear of mistakes gets in the way of learning and speaking, and this is an important point to keep in mind when teaching (or learning) a language.
An older school of language instruction demanded good pronunciation, grammar, and usage right from the start, on the theory that this saved having to un-learn bad habits later. Today the emphasis has shifted toward the ability to communicate, since that’s a more urgent real-world need, and experience has shown that those supposed bad habits aren’t so hard to shake after all.
In fact, the confident but ungrammatical Esperanto speaker I mentioned earlier now uses the accusative perfectly.
Esperanto is often self-taught or learned with a group of friends (which is incidentally one reason I decided to write this column in English). This has its disadvantages, but it may often have an unrecognized advantage: It makes it less likely that we’ll be afraid of making mistakes for the same reason that people sing with more confidence in the shower or in a karaoke bar.
But some lingering nervousness may still be a problem for many of us, and anyone teaching a more formal class needs to keep in mind the need to help students get over their fear of making mistakes. One of the oldest classroom techniques for accomplishing this, especially when teaching beginners or large groups, is to let students respond en masse. Andreo Cseh, possibly the most successful Esperanto teacher who ever lived, made excellent use of this. Even people too shy to go to a karaoke bar will usually join in on a group sing.
It also builds confidence when students learn they don’t have to be perfect and that a mistake won’t result in instant, personalized criticism.
Having said all that, I don’t want to give the impression that I think students or teachers should simply ignore grammar, usage, and pronunciation and settle instead for a sort of “Min Tarzan” dialect of Esperanto. The ability to communicate may be more important, but that doesn’t mean everything else has no importance. But a better way to deal with errors, rather than calling a lot of attention to them, might be simply to emphasize what to say instead.
For example, one of the most commonly misused words in Esperanto, at least among English-speakers, is the preposition po, which has no exact equivalent in English. Since the English preposition per similarly has no exact equivalent in Esperanto and both start with a P, confusion is probably inevitable. Even experienced and knowledgeable Esperanto-speakers will occasionally talk of a car traveling “je 60 mejloj po horo” or a hotel room costing “100 dolarojn po nokto.”
It isn’t sufficient to point out that this is a mistake, since that leaves unanswered questions: If po doesn’t mean “per,” then what does it mean? And how do you translate per into Esperanto? Examples are likely to be clearer than abstract definitions. For instance:
“She drove 60 miles per hour” can be translated “Ŝi veturis 60 mejlojn hore” or “Ŝi veturis po 60 mejloj en horo”.
“The hotel room costs $100 per night” is equivalent to “La hotelĉambro kostas 100 dolarojn nokte.”
“Mi donis al ili po du pomoj” means “I gave them two apples each.” (Very often “po _____” can be translated “_____ each” or “_____ apiece”.)
It’s also useful to have the students invent their own examples.